Thursday, November 03, 2005

Hemingway's Question

Power is supposed to be about taking responsibility for your actions. That's the way we portray it in popular culture, anyway. Power, the exercise of power, the "projection of power," in the military phrase, is about responsibility. If we don't do it, someone else will. If we do project our power, we take responsibility for it. We put our lives on the line. We test our mettle on the field of battle. We risk our all in order to gain a measure of security, peace, comfort, justice, tranquility.

So how come it never works out that way?

Power is about taking responsibility for our actions. Unless the bombs drop on the wrong people. Oops. Or innocent people are hurt, or get in the way, or suffer. Sorry. Not our fault. Our intentions were good. Our morality, our ethics, say its okay to hurt you, because we had a higher purpose in mind. Our war is just because it is necessary. All that "turn the other cheek" stuff is fine, but that's for individuals: this is a matter of the comity and survival of nations. And when power doesn't solve anything, when the exercise of extreme power is not enough to secure peace and tranquility and liberty for at least our people, because at the end of the day it is our military, then there is only one solution available:

More power.

Power is also about being in control. That's the reward we are supposed to gain for taking responsibility for using it; for using our power. But power is never ours, and we are never in control of it. Nor do we purify it, make it clean and good and right, because our hearts are pure. Projectin power is the way of the tyrant and the despot as well as the benevolent and the democracy, and the ends are the same. The sole reason we can look at World War II as the "Good War" is because we didn't so much project power, as resist power. But still, power doesn't care if your heart is pure and your intentions good and your government the most representative on the planet. Representative of what? Of human greed, indifference, callousness, selfishness? Why is power projected by a democracy better than power projected by a dictator? Because the hearts of the people are pure? Or because they are us?

The answer of this Administration has been: "because they are us." It has been all about projecting power. And now that projection of power has run up against limitations. Military power can destroy a country, but as Europe learned over a century ago, it cannot secure it for the country that wields that power. Political power can gain some measure of advance of one's domestic goals, but it cannot be wielded absolutely or with impunity. Power flows from the efforts of a people to secure their liberty and tranquility; but it serves its own ends, and never the ends of the people who use it.

And so we end up in the quagmire of Iraq. In the devastation of New Orleans. With the near-wreckage of the country's ideals all around us, and an incompetent and criminal
Administration paralyzed by the very power it tried to wield, trapped in its own arrogance and up against the limitations of both national and international law. The ultimate irony: the very law that gave them power, that created political offices and put them in those offices, now threatens to bring down their entire house of cards. Will still more power rescue them this time?

The only true power, is in powerlessness. The brutal, almost unrestrained use of power by this Administration, has been a national object lesson in that simple, paradoxical truth. And the evidence of the truth, is in the clandestine way in which they know they must use their power, if they are to have it at all.

Gitmo is closed to outside observers. Meetings about national energy policy are closed to the public. Critics of the Administration are dealt with in smear campaigns and whispers deliberately leaked from behind closed doors. More energy is expended in creating schemes of subterfuge and deceit than is expended is doing the good of which government is capable (for Niebuhr was right in at least that much; government is a necessary evil). And all of this covert effort and occult maneuvering has one purpose: to allow this Administration to wield power absolutely, and as they alone see fit.

But they aren't quite allowed to do that, and they know it. So they hide their deeds in darkness. And they desperately try to project still more power. Because if the power they have is enough, the lesson they have learned is: they just need a little more.

And how has that been working out for them? And for us?

"How do you like it now, gentlemen?"

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